Pests or pals? Living with urban wildlife

Brushtail Possum in a boxCalamitous cockies, pushy possums and the odd snake: love them or loathe them, Australian cities are rich in native wildlife that’s adapted to an urban lifestyle.

And even though they can be annoying and often become pests — as anyone who has had possums living in their roof will attest — we can co-exist happily with our city-dwelling feathered, furry and scaly friends.

That’s right — even possums.

Here are a few ways to live alongside the animals on your doorstep without calling pest control every other day.

How do I stop possums nibbling on my herbs …

Boil chillies and garlic in water, let it cool, strain and pour it in a spray bottle, and spray your garden.

This stinky, spicy concoction will keep possums away, along with loads of other herb-chomping creatures, said Sarah Bekessy, an urban ecologist at RMIT in Melbourne.

The natural chemical weapon contains capsaicin from chilli, which is the active ingredient in pepper spray, and irritating sulphur-based garlic compounds, which can kill insects on contact.

Or you could take a leaf from the world of permaculture, which accepts that part of a crop will be lost to animals, Professor Bekessy said.

“Maybe have a patch where the possums can have a nibble, then a sprayed section or a part covered with netting for yourself.”

… or living in my roof?

Wild possums like to make their home in tree trunk hollows, but in cities, they go for the next best thing: roof spaces.

The problem is they scutter and clatter around, and at night, it can sound like someone’s being murdered up there.


YOUTUBE: Possums in full scream mode. You might want to turn your speakers down for this one.

You could block up your roof, Professor Bekessy said. But if you don’t want to get rid of possums altogether, you can install homes for them.

“They go on the edge of your roof, like a bird box, but it’s a possum box,” she said.

And if you would prefer shy, quiet ringtail possums rather than the rambunctious brushtails, plant trees such as wattles, lilly pillies and casuarinas, Professor Bekessy said.

While brushtails are able to scale the tallest trees, ringtails prefer to creep around and eat the flowers on these mid-storey trees.

What should I do if I see a baby bird on the ground?

This one depends on a lot of ifs.

First, if the chick is injured or has been attacked, take it to a wildlife care centre.

If it appears OK and is unfeathered or mostly naked, it is a hatching or nestling. Pop it back in its nest if you can find it.

Do not worry that you are handling the chick. Birds do not have a great sense of smell. And it is a myth that a mother bird will smell you and reject its chick.

The best thing you can do for an uninjured nestling is to place it back in its nest. (Flickr: Stephen Michael Barnett)If you cannot see a nest, or it is too high to reach, put some grass in a shallow basket, wire it to a branch, and stick the chick in it.

“The amazing thing is the mother often comes back”, Professor Bekessy said. “Sometimes the chick will even climb up to its nest.”

If the bird is well-feathered and can hop and walk, it is likely a fledgeling learning to fly. Leave it alone unless it is in danger — only then should you place it in a shrub or bush.

What should I do if I see a snake?

First up: don’t panic when that stick across the path starts wriggling.

Australian snakes are generally very shy. If you see one while out walking, just walk away. It will not come after you, Professor Bekessy said.

If you see one around your house, go inside and make yourself a cup of tea until it slithers away.

Some snakes can be handy as they are excellent pest controllers.

“If you’re in the tropics and you have a python, you probably don’t have any rats,” Professor Bekessy said.

But if you have kids or pets and are worried about them being bitten by a snake that has moved into the area, ring your state wildlife organisation to arrange a visit from a snake catcher.

How do I stop cockies tearing my decking apart?

The iconic sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) dines on berries, seeds and roots, but when they congregate, they can literally bite your lovingly laid decking to bits.

Exactly why they do this is a bit of a mystery. It might help keep their growing beak in check.

To keep them away from your timber railings, you might distract them with a more palatable option, Dr Bekessy said. Cockies love tearing hakea seed pods and pine cones apart.

Otherwise, string fishing line across your decking, which makes it hard for the birds to land.

If you can bear to cover your lovely wood grain, you might try painting your decking white — it also seems to deter cockies, although why is also an enigma.

How can I keep birds safe from my cat?

This is an easy fix: keep your cat inside, particularly at night — their prime hunting time.

Besides, indoor cats are healthier and live longer than their free-roaming counterparts.

If you keep your cat inside but neighbourhood cats come calling, the aforementioned garlic and chilli spray, applied liberally around trees, should discourage them.

And to give native birds a safe space to hang out, plant loads of prickly shrubby species such as hakeas and grevilleas.

Harmonious living doesn’t have to mean eviction

Rather than seeing urban wildlife as pests, try looking at the creatures in a positive light, Professor Bekessy said.

Observing and teasing apart local ecological webs is a great way to teach kids about science and the environment.

What’s more, urban nature has many benefits for city-dwelling people, such as improved mental health, garden pollination and controlling biting insects.

Professor Bekessy recounted the story of bats in the city of Austin, Texas: “People got rid of their bats as they were feared and reviled, but found later an explosion of mosquitos and related diseases.

“Now the bats are a welcome feature of the Austin night sky, even generating money from tours of their bridge nesting sites.

“Really reflect on these ‘pests’. You might miss them when they’re gone.”

Article courtesy of ABC Science: